While Gaza rages, a visitor to Jaffa discovers how many remained after the great expulsions of 1948, continuing to live and work in something like the diverse society they remembered.
As former citrus grove worker Ismail Abu Shehadeh reminded me, “you must wipe 1948 from your mind. Four thousand bombs were dropped on Jaffa — and it was a small place. Forgetting is a blessing from God.” Better for the old not to bring up the past, not to remember.
Sixty unarmed protestors were killed last month by Israeli military on the Gaza border, on the day that the US inaugurated its new embassy in Jerusalem, outraging the world; the Palestinians had been, in part, commemorating the Nakba, the catastrophe of the displacement of so many from the new state of Israel 70 years ago. The Great March of Return movement argues for the refugees’ right to come back to their ancestral lands. Yet some communities never left.
Staying in an Arab area south of Tel Aviv, I realized that Christian and Muslim Arabs and Jewish Israelis were, despite the divisive policies and rightward march of the Israeli government, still living together in a microcosm of what was once a very diverse part of the world. I’d been uneasy about travelling to Israel, and my pregnant wife and I were worried when, on our first afternoon, we heard that a Palestinian man had driven a truck into a crowd in Jerusalem and killed four young Israeli soldiers. We had found our apartment, which was in Ajami, a rundown district near the port of Jaffa, and our host, who lived next door with four generations of her Arab Christian family, welcomed us kindly with coffee in a sunny courtyard amid citrus trees in fruit. She was over 70, and had probably been a small child when her homeland ceased to exist. I had not expected to find anyone like her in modern Israel.
Because we’d heard about that attack, we walked very warily to the nearby port, where the old buildings had signs like “St. Peter the Apostle stayed here.” Crossing the Jaffa headland, we stopped as we heard Muslim prayer from a mosque on the water’s edge; we also heard bells marking the hour at several churches. We could see Tel Aviv city centre to the north, its vast Miami-like towers buttressing the Mediterranean coastline.